By Sukhbaatar Togmid and Mendee Jargalsaikhan

In the 1980s, at the military school’s firing range in Khujirbulan, commanders temporarily halted their firing exercise to allow Japanese tourists drive up to the cemetery of the deceased prisoners of war (POWs) in Mongolia. The cemetery was located nearby, in the direction of the firing range. A similar site used to be located in Dambadarjaa – on the outskirts of the capital city. Now, all of the remains from that firing range have been repatriated to Japan, and a memorial has been built in its place in Dambadarjaa. Through this exchange, memories of wars were gradually replaced by memories of friendship. This is one of the greatest examples of complete reconciliation and confidence building between Mongolia and Japan in the Northeast Asia region. Now, other historical remnants of war in Mongolia offer opportunities for further cooperation. It is time for Mongolian and Japanese military historians, archaeologists, and engineers to work together in Dornod, a far eastern province, where Soviets, Mongolians, and Japanese fought in the Battles of Khalkhyn Gol (known in Japan as ‘Nomonhan Incident’, orノモンハン事件).

The Memorial garden of POWs located in Dambadarjaa, Ulaanbaatar city, 2024.

POWs in Mongolia 

At the end of the Second World War, the Soviet Union transferred 12,318 out of 640,105 Japanese POWs to Mongolia. To receive the Japanese POWs, on 31 August 1945, the Mongolian government established a Directorate for POWs and prepared facilities for their lodging before their arrival in November 1945. POWs participated primarily in construction projects, including the Government House, Opera House, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Eldev-Ochir Cinema (current Stock Exchange), First Maternity House, National Library, National University of Mongolia, and Ikh Tenger Government Complex. Moreover, many POWs were sent to Selenge, Arkhangai, and Tuv aimags (provinces) to participate in agricultural and construction projects at aimag and soum (county) centers. POWs in the Arkhangai province laid the foundation for the fishing industry at Ugii Lake to prepare fish for their colleagues. The Dambadarjaa Monastery became one of the most crowded barracks (known as Barracks One) as well as a field hospital for the Japanese POWs.

Despite the preparation, Mongolia experienced difficulty with taking in the POWs as the country lacked past experience with handling POWs and found it economically taxing to provide adequate living conditions. The extreme continental weather of -30°C in the winter and +40°C in the summer, poor nutrition, and hard labor devastated the POWs. In October 1947, after two years of hardship in Mongolia, 10,705 out of 12,318 POWs returned to Japan. 50 Japanese POWs remained until 1957 to serve time for crimes committed in Mongolia. In the end, 1,618 POWs died in Mongolia. They were buried at sixteen locations, including Dambadarjaa and Khujirbulan in Ulaanbaatar city, as well as in the Selenge and Arkhangai provinces.

Upstair view of the Memorial garden,2024.


The burial sites in Mongolia were unknown in Japan until 1965 for two reasons: (1) the two countries had not established diplomatic relations yet and (2) they belonged to two different political camps during the Cold War. Marahito Hanada (花田麿公) and Sakiyama(崎山), two inquiring Japanese diplomats attending the UN conference in Ulaanbaatar, implored officials of the Ministry of Foreign Relations of Mongolia to allow them to visit the Japanese POWs burial sites. Ms. Nyamjav, a protocol officer of the Ministry, led them to the Dambadarjaa site. The Japanese diplomats brought back photos of the site to report to their Ministry of Foreign Affairs and stones to distribute to the family members who had lost their loved ones in Mongolia. News about the family members – who received the stones – made headline in Nippon Hoso Kyokai (NHK, 日本放送協会). Soon, several members of the parliament initiated the idea of sending a delegation to these burial sites in Mongolia. In the same year, Aiichirō Fujiyama (藤山愛一郎), MP, former Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Chairman of the Association for People Not Returned to Homeland (未帰還者同盟会長), sent a letter requesting information on 27 people who went missing in Mongolia, to Tsedenbal Yumjaa, a leader of Mongolia, through the Japanese Embassy in Moscow. After receiving the welcoming letter from Tsedenbal, the first batch of delegates ((第1回墓参団) – led by the Japanese Ministry of Health and Welfare– arrived in Mongolia in 1966. The delegation included two MPs, two from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, two from the Ministry of Health and Welfare, one from the media, and eight people representing family members who lost their loved ones in Mongolia[1]. Through this visit, the two countries initiated discussions on establishing a bilateral relationship – which was officially formalized later in 1972.

The Leader of the first batch of delegates,  Satoshi Hasegawa (長谷川) pouring water on the gravestone at the cemetery,1966 (left). The gravestone, 2024 (right).  


From 1982, at the request of the Japanese side, Mongolian and Japanese teams worked together to find names for each person buried and cross-check numbers. Mongolia’s records indicated 12,318 POWs in total and 1,621 deaths whereas Japanese records stated 13,847 POWs and 1,684 deaths. The discrepancy required more collaboration to trace old records and to investigate local rumors of Japanese POWs who obtained Mongolian identities and settled in secrecy. However, this was impossible until 1991 – when Mongolia and Japan opened a new chapter of closer bilateral relations following the end of the Cold War. In 1991, the Japanese government requested the repatriation of the burial sites. The request was honored by the Mongolian government and both sides worked to successfully repatriate all burial sites by 1997 – leaving only the nametags in Mongolia. In 2001, a Memorial Garden was established in Dambadarjaa – becoming one of the most attractive sites for Japanese visitors. The site has welcomed Japanese Prime Ministers –Toshiki Kaifu(海部俊樹), Junichiro Koizumi (小泉純一郎), and Shinzo Abe (安倍晋三). Notably, Prime Minister Koizumi visited Dambadarjaa in 1997 when he was the Minister of Health and Welfare to celebrate the retrieval of all burials and to thank the Mongolian people who were involved in the repatriation process. 

Concluding Thoughts

This constructive collaboration between the governments and people of Mongolia and Japan demonstrates an excellent example of nations healing the wounds of their past conflicts and paving the way for productive, trusting partnerships. Japanese dignitaries, families, and visitors stopped at the Dambadarjaa Memorial to honor the Japanese soldiers who died in Mongolia after their captivity in WWII. These soldiers, indeed, made their fair share of contributions to Mongolia through building its modernized city and developing its agricultural industry. For next steps, both governments can work together to heal the wounds of the 1939 the Battles of Khalkhyn Gol to clean the battlefield, discover war remains, and eventually memorialize it so that younger generations can understand the horror of such conflicts and develop paths for further peaceful cooperation.

Acknowledgement: Authors would like to thank Mr. Hesu Song, a Princeton in Asia fellow in Mongolia, for being a peer reader and the copy-editing.

[1] Article “「モンゴル抑留問題は未解決」〜花田麿公元大使に聞く” by Kanako Onishi , December 19th, 2020. (

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